Health Benefits of the Prickly Pear Cactus
It's a fruit, vegetable, and flower all wrapped into one. It's got vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Yet the prickly pear cactus is not exactly a supermarket staple.
"I believe the prickly pear cactus is destined to be the next herbal superstar," says Ran Knishinsky, author of Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine. "It is a very unique plant, and it has long been known to be a healer."
It's mostly found in the desert, though prickly pear also grows on high cold mountains, along the coasts, in jungles, and in sub-tropical areas, Knishinsky says. Thought to be the most adaptable plant of all the cacti, it's a perennial, growing all year long.
Besides being hardy, the prickly pear cactus is believed to have healing properties, says Knishinsky. The pads are packed with minerals such as potassium and iron, and they're high in beta-carotene and vitamin C. They also contain all eight essential amino acids that aren't made by the body. All in all, the pads are a nutritious, high-fiber, low-fat food, Knishinsky says.
How to Eat Prickly Pear Cactus
"Prickly pear pads are eaten as a staple of the diet in certain countries," he says. "They taste like a cross between okra and broccoli." The prickly pear flowers, like rose hips and hibiscus flowers, are picked, dried and sold in bulk.
The fruit (one of the most delicious parts of the prickly pear, says Knishinsky) tastes like a cross between a watermelon with tiny seeds and a kiwi. "If a watermelon married a kiwi and they had a kid, it would be the prickly pear fruit," he jokes. Kidding aside, it's rich in fiber, which can lower LDL cholesterol. With its minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins, the fruit has a positive effect on blood sugar, he says.
While it's premature to tout prickly pear cactus as a superfood, there is some evidence that it can decrease blood sugar levels. (More research is needed, but it may blunt the unpleasant effects of a hangover, and have anti-inflammatory properties as well.)
There is some research that shows it could lower blood sugar, agrees Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Whether it has a long term or just a short term effect on blood sugar is not clear," she adds. But, she says, the prickly pear cactus does have a lot going for it nutritionally-like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C. "It can definitely be part of a healthy diet," she says.
If you decide to give the prickly pear cactus a try, start out slowly. It can cause such side effects as abdominal fullness in some individuals. As for where to find it, check health food stores as well as some supermarkets.
"I've even seen the pads, already peeled and thorned, sitting in a jar in the supermarket," Knishinsky says. "It's starting to permeate the shelves," he says. "It takes time for these things to be found, and it is definitely growing in popularity."
Ran Knishinsky, author of Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine (Inner Traditions).
Katherine Zeratsky. "Consumer Health." Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/prickly-pear-cactus/AN02193
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